Testimony: interpreting the old testament

posted on 2012-07-02

In February 2011 I was discharged as a conscientious objector after 7 years in the Navy.  Part of the conscientious objector process is an interview with an investigating officer.  His job is to assess the “depth and sincerity” of the applicant’s beliefs.  My interview spanned three days and covered both technical legal points and broad theological concepts.  Here is a short excerpt where we talk about how I interpret the bible, especially with regard to the old testament’s apparent violence.

The investigating officer is in bold, and I am in plain text.

You put in your application that after you read Choosing Against War by John Roth. Afterward, you looked at the Bible to make sure it made sense. Do you normally do that after looking at what a man has written and compare it back to what you know to be written?  Do you believe that the Bible is inspired by God’s word?

I do believe that the Bible’s inspired, but I think by that I mean something different than what some people mean. I’m not sure how to describe that difference. I believe that things today can also be inspired, that the Bible’s not the only inspired thing, that the Bible still needs to be understood in historical context, and it has to be understood that it wasn’t God who wrote those words. It was human beings.

Was there any difference between the human beings who wrote the Bible and yourself?

The main difference is the human beings, at least in the New Testament, had more direct access to Jesus and his teachings. I haven’t had physical encounters with Jesus, but through my prayers and other spiritual practice, I feel like I’ve had some of that encounter. So I guess I see those individuals as teachers, or a path for me to follow, a guide.

So do you believe the story of the parting of the red sea? Moses talking to the burning bush? Things like that?

My belief in the Bible is primarily based on my belief in Jesus. Those other parts of the Bible, whether they happened or not, may be an interesting historical tidbit, but it’s not foundational.  It’s not that important.

My belief in Jesus is not dependent on whether the Old Testament got certain facts exactly right.

In the Old Testament, there’s discussions of different warfare. For example, Joshua taking Jericho, Gideon taking the Midianites, Sampson against the Philistines, and David’s conquests. Those are all more either nation against nation or tribe against tribe. What do you think about those, contrasting or comparing what happened in the Old Testament to what Jesus is teaching now?

I think that comparing those two, in the Old Testament, the way the stories are written appear very different. It does appear God condoned or even ordered war in those cases. But the important thing to me is that I’m trying to follow Jesus. His example of not choosing war, of choosing peaceful ways, is the way that I have to go.

I just had an epiphany of my own. Do you think what happened then, because in many cases these people that were attacked were not following God, do you think it’s possible that that was a similar situation to Jesus and the temple? God had sent someone to tell them they’re wrong?

I actually like that comparison a lot, because if we compare how Jesus did it to the way other people did it, Jesus did it in a way that did not involve warfare and did not involve killing people.

So Jesus is able to accomplish what was accomplished before, through peace?


So let’s talk about that whole thing with Gideon going to take out the Mennonites.

I think you mean Midianites.

Edit: throughout the whole conversation the investigating officer would mix up these two words. It’s pretty hilarious in retrospect, but really flustered me at the time.

I assume you’ve read the story.  Tell me about it.

The story is that the Israelites were being attacked by a large army. Gideon raised an army to fight, but according to the Bible Gideon prayed to God, and God kept saying “No that’s too many people. You need fewer people.” Eventually Gideon had a very small number, maybe 100, I forget exactly. They ended up tricking the other army into basically killing themselves. Certainly the way it’s portrayed Gideon thought that killing was God’s command, and that he was doing God’s work.

It was all about going and attacking and killing those people because they were idol worshipers. They weren’t worshiping God. They were spreading false religions much as probably the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin were. They had created their own religion. People were following them, not God. Wasn’t Jesus coming to lead us back to God? Saying, these people have placed all these requirements upon you: special foods that you have to eat, and special ways that you have to walk, and special resting that you have to take, you can’t work in these hours and all that. Would you agree with all that?

I think that’s a very important difference between how Jesus handled the situation and how Gideon did. Like I said before, I follow Jesus.

You said Gideon handled it, but Gideon didn’t actually do anything, right? He just listened to what God said. As you said, he just took troops down there and didn’t even have to fight. God made those people all kill themselves.

That’s the story in the bible, but…

So Gideon didn’t kill anyone, right? It was actually under God’s control? Gideon didn’t even want to go fight, right? Gideon kept saying are you sure? Make this fleece wet if I’m supposed to go. Make the ground wet. I don’t want to go fight. I don’t want to go down there. But ultimately he did God’s will, didn’t he?

I’m listening for what God’s is will for me. It is apparently very different from how Gideon described it for himself. I look to the way Jesus handled that same sort of situation because I believe Jesus is God. I don’t believe Gideon is God. I have no idea whether Gideon was inspired by God or not. I believe Jesus was God, and that I’m inspired by Jesus and inspired by God. I must follow Jesus’s way. I believe Jesus’s way was a way of peace.

Alright, and that’s good.  Now, let’s go back. You hinted that maybe you don’t believe in the Old Testament. Do you believe this story is true? You said earlier you believe the old testament is a historical document.

About the inspiration of the books, I believe that they were written by people and that they have those associated flaws, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We have to understand them in that context. Whether the author of Judges thought Gideon was inspired is different question from whether Gideon actually was inspired. And really it has no bearing on my life. I don’t think it has a bearing on my beliefs because I believe I have to follow Jesus, not Gideon.

Did the Old Testament predict that Jesus Christ would be coming?

I don’t know. I know that there’s lots of verses that people describe as Messianic verses and that they’re prophesies. And I’ve looked into some of them and maybe these are prophesies and I’ve looked into others and said that I think people are clearly misunderstanding these verses. Overall it is not important to my understanding of Jesus whether he was prophesied in the Old Testament.

Was Jesus not alive in the Old Testament? You said you believed in the Trinity. Wasn’t Jesus always there?

He was not alive in the same sense that I’m alive now and had a body on earth.

But he did exist, right?

I wouldn’t know how to describe what he was.

Do you believe that Jesus existed since the beginning of time when God existed, along with the Spirit of God?

I believe that all three of those are eternal.

Do you believe—and we’ll just say God, because as you said, Jesus, God, and The Spirit are one—So do you believe that God’s will is that you should not be in the military?


And would it be reasonable that Gideon believed God’s will was that he was supposed to assemble an army to go attack? Remember I just said, do you believe it’s possible?

What I believe is that the author of Judges believed that Gideon believed that God ordered those things. There’s a lot of layers of indirection there. To really understand the meaning of that, we have to peel back and do a lot of exploration and interpretation.

You realize that there’s danger when you start believing that some stuff in the Bible’s not true, because then we might start believing that Jesus is not true. Everything you know about Jesus is in the Bible, and anything that you hear about it is from other people who wrote stuff about the Bible.

As you said, if you have God’s spirit within you because you’re saved, whether you’re born with it or not, you’ve been saved so you have God’s spirit within you. You have the ability to interpret the word of God in the bible on your own.

So, do you really need to rely on any other man’s interpretation? Would another man’s interpretation be better than your interpretation?

I believe Bible is other man’s interpretation.

Of God’s word directly?

In part guided by God’s word directly, but also in part by their experiences and what they witnessed. It is accounts of what they witnessed guided by God.

You think some parts of the Bible are more important than others.  Why? Is there anything in the Bible that you think was written by somebody that did not have that experience with God?

I guess parts of the Bible are more important to me because I feel they are more spiritually enlightening. A large part of why I feel they’re spiritually enlightening is that I can trace a tradition to them. For example I see how important the Sermon on the Mount was to the early church, and that’s why it’s so important to me. So tradition and historical accuracy are my two main guides.

Don’t you think that there might be some pastors out there that speak Greek and Aramaic that might raise a stink if someone was to put out a Bible out on the shelf and it was an inaccurate translation? Wouldn’t you be very curious if someone ran up to you and said, “Oh I just learned Greek and I’ve got this Greek Testament. And you know what, we’re wrong. Jesus is not the Son of God. It says here that Jesus was just a regular guy. It says here that a man named John Smith will be born and he will be the son of God and you should worship me.” Don’t you think you’d be curious? Think maybe that guy doesn’t know what in the world he’s talking about? 

You know Jesus was seen by hundreds of people when he was raised from the dead and came back. He was seen by hundreds of people. Don’t you think that if someone had recorded it wrong, one of those hundreds of people would have come back and said, “No it wasn’t like that.”

I mean, I agree that the Bible’s been very well analyzed. My study of Hebrew has helped me understand how this analysis process works. It’s helped me understand why I should believe in the Bible and why that stuff doesn’t happen.  The historical analysis of the bible has complemented my spiritual understanding of the bible. For me, at least, I can’t separate one from the other—the learning Hebrew, seeing that the history goes back and is well traced, and that Christian pacifism is a tradition that’s not new, that it’s continuous, and that people have been saying it for a while: ever since Jesus came.

So it’s affirmed your beliefs in the old testament? Is that true?

Not quite.  I think the old testament and new testament are very different beasts.  My study has confirmed my belief in Jesus.  I see that as the most important part. I see the old testament as leading up to Jesus and helping me understand Jesus based on his roots. Not that I should be going back to the old testament to see how I should live, but that I should be going to Jesus to see how he lived and that’s how I should live. It’s helpful to understand the old testament so that I can understand Jesus.

How did Jesus feel about the old testament? What did he have to say about it?

He said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.

Where is the law written?

The law is the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.

Did Jesus ever make corrections to the Old Testament? For instance, we talked about Gideon. Maybe when Jesus came did he tell anyone that the story of Gideon was recorded wrong and I need you to write an update or a change to correct it? Did he do any of that?

In my understanding, yes. Jesus says, “You have heard that it has been said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” I forget how the verse continues, but Jesus says it really isn’t an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It’s love your neighbor and turn the other cheek. It’s my understanding that those aren’t incompatible.

Okay. That seems to be a case where Jesus did say perhaps the Old Testament, part of that way was to change. Why didn’t he make other corrections besides that one?

I’m not sure that it was important for him to go through the Old Testament and go verse by verse. Reject this verse, reinterpret this verse, this person was misunderstanding slightly when he said this.

But the Bible’s important, so don’t you think he would have corrected it? Don’t you think he would care about us that much, that if we could be lead down the wrong path by incorrect verse that he would correct it so we would then be led down the correct path?

Jesus presented a very radical world view, and to explain that view he had to use simple language to be succinct.  Even still he was constantly misunderstood by those around him.  I believe that the sermon on the mount is a sufficient explanation of that, of his world view. It is very short and simple and something that someone can sit down and listen to Jesus preach in one day and understand. Now I can sit down and read it and in the course of an hour or half hour and understand what Jesus was all about.

For me to expect Jesus to do some sort of textual analysis using techniques that we’ve only been adopting in modern times is not what the people were looking for then, and not what I’m looking for now from Jesus.